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US, South Korea Free Trade Talks Underway

The first round of free trade negotiations between South Korea and the United States is underway in Washington D.C. The talks, which formally started Monday, are believed to be the biggest for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. Still, there are major hurdles for both sides.

Smiles mask the tough negotiations ahead as U.S. and South Korean trade officials meet face to face in Washington. Myron Brilliant, who leads a coalition of more than 170 American business organizations, says that despite strong differences on issues ranging from agriculture to automobiles, the benefits of opening new trade opportunities for both countries outweigh the challenges.

"I think a free trade agreement with the U.S., the world's largest market, provides that opportunity but it also provides an opportunity for Korea to get a leg up on their competition into this market,” Brilliant said. “Korea has a lot of motivation to move forward. Are there challenges? Of course there are challenges."

Among them is a concerted effort by South Korean labor groups who say opening agricultural markets to U.S. producers would make it impossible for their farmers to compete. Kang Kikab, a member of the South Korean National Assembly, promises daily protests in Washington until negotiators listen to workers’ concerns.

"It must hear the voices of Korean workers and farmers,” Kikab said. “Without that, the free trade agreement has no meaning."

A number of contentious issues could make a meaningful agreement harder to reach. South Korean officials insist current tariffs, which make U.S. cars expensive to buy in South Korea, are non-negotiable. On the other hand, the U.S. refuses to give duty-free status to goods produced in Keosong, a North Korean industrial complex being promoted by South Korea.

South Korean broadcaster Sunjoong Kim explains that the inclusion of some North Korean products in the trade deal is part of the reunification plan for the two Koreas. "The Korean government and people think that the best thing to live with North Korea is to have them experience capitalism and a market economy and the Keosong Industrial complex is the first step to that," Kim said.

That may be a tough sell for U.S. lawmakers who are opposed to lifting economic sanctions against Pyongyang.

Negotiations for a free trade agreement between the United States and South Korea are expected to take about a year.